Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Lost Voice of Radio Beijing

by G. Jack Urso


On the evening of June 3, 1989, I was working the overnight shift at WQBK-1300 AM. At the time, the station was located on an isolated hill outside Albany, New York. The networks were buzzing with news of the violent crackdown on the pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square. The teletype clacked away every few minutes with the latest reports. In the days before the World Wide Web, there was little to do but wait for the next report to come through. 
 
Looking for more news beyond our network feed, I began to surf the frequencies on the satellite dish. Eventually, I picked up an audio feed of an English-speaking announcer for Radio Beijing who reported the news of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. I’m not sure if this was a part of a network news feed or just a stray signal I caught, but I felt an immediate connection to my fellow broadcaster. It was also obvious to anyone who followed the news that the Communist Chinese government’s response would fall harshly on those who broke the wall of silence. I wondered if I would have the same courage had I been in his place.
 
The audio I recorded from the broadcast is available below, along with some rare photographs from the massacre, in a slide show I produced in conjunction with my research on this event:  

Knowing the historical significance of the broadcast, I transferred it from reel-to-reel tape to a cart (see Fig. 1). Carts look like 8-track cartridges and come in varying lengths. They were used for playing everything from station IDs and bumpers, to commercials, public service announcements, interviews, and music. Looking back at the state of radio news gathering in 1989, with no computers or Internet, and only antiquated relics like teletype, carts, and reel-to-reel, I still marvel at how we got any work done.
 
Fig. 1: The cart I recorded the Radio Beijing announcement onto on June 3-4, 1989.
Producing History

I produced my first report on this broadcast in 2000 while taking a course in Producing Historical Documentaries for Radio with Professor Gerald Zahavi at the University at Albany while working on my master’s degree. The web page for the course, though nearly 12 years old at the time of this writing, is still available at the above link. There, you can find my original short audio documentary, The Lost Voice of Radio Beijing (requires RealPlayer).

Professor Zahavi also broadcast my report on his Talking History program on WRPI-90.9 FM, the radio station for the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in 2000 and 2001. 
 

Transcription of Original Radio Beijing Broadcast - June 3, 1989:
This is Radio Beijing. Please remember June the third, 1989. The most tragic event happened in the Chinese capital, Beijing.
Thousands of people, most of them innocent civilians, were killed by fully armed soldiers when they forced their way into the city. Among the killed are our colleagues at Radio Beijing.
The soldiers were riding on armored vehicles and used machine guns against thousands of local residents and students who tried to block their way. When the army convoys made a breakthrough, soldiers continued to spray their bullets indiscriminately at crowds in the street.
Eyewitnesses say some armored vehicles even crushed foot soldiers who hesitated in front of the resisting civilians.
Radio Beijing English Department deeply mourns those died in the tragic incident and appeals to all its listeners to join our protest for the gross violation of human rights and the most barbarous suppression of the people.
Because of this abnormal situation here in Beijing, there is no other news we could bring you. We sincerely ask for your understanding and thank you for joining us at this most tragic moment.


While working on the report for the class, I contacted Radio Free Asia in Washington D.C. in the hope that someone there might have some information about the announcer. Through an interpreter, I was able to speak with a former Radio Beijing reporter who was actually at Tiananmen Square the evening of June 3, 1989. She didn’t know who the announcer was, but said she would look into it and let me know if she found out anything.
Fig. 2: FCC Restricted Radio Telephone Operator Permit:
Issued January 31, 1986.
About six months later, well after the course had ended, I received an e-mail from my contact at Radio Free Asia who informed me of that the announcer’s name is Yuan Neng and he was transferred from his job for broadcasting the report. The script was by Wu Xiaoyong, Deputy Director of the English Language Service at Radio Beijing. His father, Wu Xueqian, at the time was a Senior Council Vice-President. According to my contact, after the broadcast, Wu was put under house arrest for two to three years and later moved to Hong Kong. His father’s connections likely played a part in his release.
 
Fig. 3: Human Rights Watch listing.
Recent research confirmed my contact’s report of Wu Xiaoyong in the document, The Persecution of Human Rights Monitors: December 1988 to December 1989, by Human Rights Watch (December 1989) (see Fig. 3).  The eventual fate of the announcer Yuan Neng is not reported.

China is seeking a balance between its capitalist ambitions and cultural traditions; however, one wonders if the threat the Chinese Communist government perceived in 1989 was not so much a fear of revolution per se, but rather that the moral imperative through which all governments derive their power, the consent of the people, would vanish in the face of true competition in the marketplace of ideas.


UPDATE 4 June 2015: Through various sources, including a reader of Aeolus 13 Umbra and a Canadian film documentarian, it has been reported that Yuan Neng is alive and living in the United States, but does not wish to discuss the events of June 3-4, 1989, at this time.


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6 comments:

  1. This information is incorrect. I worked at China Radio International for 5 years an personally know the Deputy Director of the English Service who retired in 2005 as well as the daughter of what at one time was known as Radio Peking's first English announcer. When I left CRI I took with the original tapes from that period. Also Radio Beijing at the time did not use satellite as a distribution platform. Satellite came years later. What you have is an off air recorded made off shortwave. Cui Hong who has been at CRI for over 30 years told me who it was and it's not him. I also know Lin Shao Wen who for years worked in the English Service and is now in the central Chinese newsroom . I remember in 2002 going thought the tape archives of CRI on the 1st floor of their building in West Beijing all the original tapes dated June 2 to June 6th are missing. But A friend in the frequency department has old cassette copies, which I know have. These will be released down the road.

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    1. I believe it is you sir who is incorrect, mainly because I'm not clear on exactly what you are asserting, particularly as you were not at the radio station that evening in 1989. I recorded the broadcast, and it was off a satellite feed. How it got on satellite, I cannot say, and state as much in my post, if you read it.

      I suggest you move beyond your assumptions of the state of Chinese broadcast technology in 1989 and instead take a step back and realize that this momentous event was being monitored by every major news service in the world. It does not take much to realize that it was likely recorded by a major news organization off shortwave and re-packaged as part of a news feed.

      If you read my post, I state quite clearly I did not know how this broadcast ended up on satellite. I make absolutely no claims regarding Chinese broadcast technology in 1989.

      Who you know in China is basically irrelevant. I was there at the radio station. I recorded it. I investigated it with reporters at Radio Free Asia.

      If your colleagues in China have a different opinion on the matter, they are free to post their evidence right here.

      I look forward to their feedback.

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  2. Well, nearly a year has passed and still no word from PCJ Media or his friends in mainland China state-sanctioned radio stations...go figure...

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  3. Nice article. There are good information about China Radio International. It is useful for china people. I like this kind of Blog. Thanks for admin. He is great. If anyone like to get informatics blog about China Radio International please click here.
    Beijing radio

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  4. Thank you for this post. Am I to understand that to this day no one knows what became of Yuan Neng? Seems like it is something worth investigating further! Someone should take the time to tell his story.

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  5. Thank you for asking! To my complete surprise, I only learned within the past month that Yuan Neng is indeed still alive! I did not have the pleasure of speaking with him myself, but a documentary filmmaker who became interested in my story contacted me and used her resources to track him down - and he is living in the United States.

    According to my contact, Mr. Neng does not feel the time is yet right for him to discuss his story. He may still have family in China, and very likely saw some horrible things that evening, so we have to respect his wishes.

    I do not feel I am liberty to identify Mr. Neng's location, nor the documentary filmmaker who approached me about his story. If it all goes well, in a couple years we may finally see a documentary about "The Lost Voice of Radio Beijing," and I truly hope so. It is a story long overdue to be told to an wider audience. Hopefully, Mr. Neng will wish to share his story with the filmmaker, and I truly hope he does so. Every year that passes, the Tiananmen Square Massacre gets less and less coverage and the valiant sacrifice of so many, including Mr. Neng who had to flee his homeland, becomes forgotten - but never here!


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